Saved by an American Jew
Two Friends Captured by Pirates in the 18th Century
Rabbi Yitzchok Horowitz, known popularly as R’ Itzikel Hamburger, served initially as rav of Brody, Ukraine, but later assumed the prestigious position of rav of the communal threesome of Altona, Hamburg and Wandsbek, in Northern Germany.
The following story involving Rav Itzikel, which was well-known among Hamburg’s inhabitants,1As told by Rabbi Yosef Löwenstein of Serock, Matamei Yitzchak, Piotrków 1906, Page 12, in a footnote. involves the halachic concept of an agunah, a woman whose husband’s whereabouts are unknown. An agunah retains her status as a married woman and thus may not remarry unless her husband’s death is proven.
In general, two halachically valid witnesses are required for testimony in matters regarding marriage. To enable an agunah to remarry, however, Chazal were lenient in allowing the testimony of even one witness to suffice.
Zalman’s Report to the Rav
Sometime in the year 1766, a local Hamburg businessman named Zalman, arrived in a panicked state at the home of the rav, R’ Itzikel.
After being granted entry to the rav’s study, Zalman struggled to compose himself.
“Rebbi,” he cried, “my friend Kalman is unfortunately no longer with us!”
“Kalman? Kalman, the businessman?! Vay iz mir! Baruch Dayan Ha’emes!”
“Rebbi, I buried him myself! Poor Kalman! But Rebbi, at least his wife isn’t an agunah any longer — she can now remarry!”
“Zalman, Zalman, calm down. Please have a seat.”
Once Zalman was seated and at ease, the rav continued. “First of all, welcome back! You were gone for so long. Where have you been? What happened to Kalman?”
Zalman began reminiscing about the events of years past, and a joint business venture that became a misadventure:
“Zalman, what’s doing? I’m setting sail on a trip to the British colonies in North America, where they say making money is really easy. Would you be interested in joining me?”
“How long will this journey take, Kalman?”
“It’s a long trip, and I expect it to last many, many weeks.”
“Well then, let me go home and discuss it with my wife, and I’ll let you know.”
…And so it was that before very long, Zalman and Kalman found themselves on a ship leaving the port of Hamburg, headed for North America. Their hearts filled with great hopes of returning, with pockets lined with riches.
Several days into the journey, Zalman and Kalman heard shouts from up on deck using the word that filled every seafarer in those days with dread: “Pirates! Pirates!”
Pirates, of course, were the bandits who hijacked boats on the high seas, robbing passengers of all their valuables and then, either killing them or selling them as slaves in far-away Arabic or African countries. Families would be split up, once-wealthy businessmen would be sold at auction as lowly field workers and life for the unfortunate travelers caught in the web of piracy would never be the same again.
Hearing the cries of despair from above, Zalman and Kalman panicked. In desperation, they ran out on deck to help the captain and his crew fight off the invading pirates, but in the end, it was the pirates who won, as the German ship and everything in it, fell into their evil hands.
The pirates emptied the boat of all its gold, silver and other valuables, and took the crew and the passengers into captivity, locking them into metal cages for the rest of the journey.
The ship made its way to Algeria in North Africa, where Zalman and Kalman were sold as slaves to a merciless owner.
“Please!” Kalman begged his new master with tears in his eyes, “I am a businessman from Hamburg. I’ve got a wife and children who are waiting for me and I have enough money to buy myself back…”
“Be quiet, slave! Tomorrow you are to begin working in my fields, plowing and planting to reach the goals I set, those of you who don’t reach it will find themselves a head shorter!”
Zalman and Kalman were shocked by the cruelty of their new slavemaster, but they also knew quite well that they were now captive in a country which entitled the master to treat them as human-chattel. Zalman, the taller and stronger of the two, managed to complete the inhuman workload. However Kalman, a more refined personality, was completely unaccustomed to such intensive fieldwork and he fell apart, sadly unable to fill his quota.
Before long, Kalman’s fate was sealed. “You are a lazy young man, and you’ve failed to meet your quota! You are not worth anything to me, a waste of my good money! Your time has come to an end!”
The master grabbed Kalman. He reached for his sword to carry out his words. But then, “Hey, where is my sword?”
Realizing he’d forgotten his sword in his mud-brick house, without which he couldn’t finish off Kalman, he took him and tied him to a tree before heading off to find his sword.
Zalman fearfully watched what was happening from afar. He was in no position to free Kalman, and his friend knew that. With tears in his eyes, Kalman begged Zalman to bring him to kever Yisrael.
Several hours later, when the day’s work was done, Zalman returned from the field, and tore his clothes in grief at the sight he saw: His friend’s body was lying on the floor, his head rolled to the side, covered in mud. With a heavy heart, Zalman took the body and gave it the last respect of a proper burial.
“At least I gave Kalman a kever Yisrael,” thought Zalman. Still enslaved himself, he could not do more than this for his now deceased friend.
The Agunos are Freed
Meanwhile, back in Hamburg, people began to worry greatly about Zalman and Kalman. No one had heard from them, nor did they know whether the two had reached their destination.
Eventually, the terrible news arrived that the ship had fallen victim to pirates, and this meant that the wives of both Kalman and Zalman were now agunos due to the uncertain fate of their husbands. They would now be forbidden to remarry unless a reliable source would demonstrate that their husbands were no longer alive.
Months and then years passed with Zalman’s wife trapped in the unfortunate state of being an agunah.
After years of enslavement in Algeria, one day, Zalman finally succeeded in escaping the clutches of his cruel master. Free at last, he made his way back to Hamburg, appearing one day without warning in his old hometown. “Zalman, is that you? Oh, my goodness, I don’t believe my eyes!”
“Yes, baruch Hashem, I have returned home to my family!”
“Where is Kalman?”
“Oy, I am sorry to have to tell you, but Kalman is no longer with us.”
“Baruch Dayan Ha’emes! Oy, but at least his wife is no longer an agunah, but rather a widow who can remarry.”
“If only he could have returned home alive together with me! But what can we do? We don’t understand the ways of Hashem, although we know He always does what is best for us.”
“Zalman, you have to go straight to our new rav to testify that Kalman is no longer alive, so that his agunah can remarry.”
“Yes, you are right, I will head straight over there. A new rav? What happened to R’ Yonathan Eibeshitz?”
“He was niftar, and a new rav was appointed, R’ Itzikel of Brody, a son of R’ Yockel, the Glogauer Rav.”
This is how Zalman came to be sitting in the rav’s office retelling the dramatic story of his salvation and his friend, Kalman’s death. “Rebbi, I buried Kalman with my own hands in the Jewish cemetery.”
The secretary wrote down the whole story as Zalman told it, and then the rav and the dayanim signed the document. Kalman’s wife was summoned and gently given the tragic news that her husband had died. As a result of Zalman’s testimony, she was told she could now remarry.
A Worried American
Some time later…
In faraway North America, a prosperous young man, a resident of the colonies for quite some time, settled in to smoke his pipe while reading the newspaper he’d just received from Germany. It read: “Hamburg: The widow of Kalman Hamburger has become engaged to marry the wealthy widower, R’ Helman.”
“What?” thought the American fellow to himself. “Kalman’s agunah is engaged? Is she going to remarry? No, no, this cannot happen!”
Leaving his coffee half undrunk on the table, he rolled the newspaper under his arm and donned his hat as he made his way quickly to a travel agent. He purchased a ticket for the next ship leaving for Europe as all the while, he kept repeating in his mind, “Kalman’s agunah a kallah? No, no, it must not be!”
After a thankfully uneventful trip, he arrived in Hamburg late one evening. He asked for directions to the rav’s home and hurried there as fast as his feet would carry him. As soon as the door opened, he burst out, “Rebbi, Kalman’s wife cannot remarry! She cannot remarry!”
“But why ever not, young man? I gave her the necessary permission to do so!”
“But, you see — I am Kalman!!!”
The rav exclaimed, “Could it really be that I was matir an eishes ish to remarry? And tonight is the wedding! You must now go straight there and stop the wedding!”
“Rebbi, I tried to do just that, but because it’s so late at night, the bridges have been lifted and no one can cross the river.”
The rav fell to the ground in anguish and cried bitter tears, bemoaning his complicity in a terrible aveira. He cried and cried until he fell into a deep sleep. Then, later that night, he awoke with a start and said, “They appeared to me from heaven to tell me that nothing bad has happened. The wedding stretched late into the night and hasn’t finished yet!”
Relief and Reunion
After summoning Kalman to his home, the rav said to him, “Kalman, we still have a little time. Please tell me how it is that you stand here before me. After all, didn’t Zalman testify that he buried you with his own hands? What really happened?”
“Rebbi, Zalman didn’t bury me. As you see for yourself, I am here. If Zalman buried someone, then it was a different slave.”
“I don’t understand, weren’t you tied to a tree and then killed by your master?”
“Not exactly. Zalman left after promising to bring me to kever Yisrael. Not long thereafter, a different master passed by with his slave. He noticed me there, tied to the tree, and asked me ‘Why are you tied up?’ I explained that I am a businessman from Hamburg, with a wife and children back home, but that I had been captured by pirates, who sold me as a slave to this sadistic master. Unable to fill my quota of back-breaking field work, he swore to kill me and will return any minute now to take my head off. I pleaded with them to save me. ‘You know what,’ he replied, ‘I have a slave who has no family and no one who will miss him. I’ll unbind you and tie him up instead.’ He untied me and put the other slave there instead, and that is the person that Zalman buried! Once I was free, I made my way to the American colonies, where, with Hashem’s help I became wealthy; when I read that my wife was going to remarry, I came directly here!”
The rav declared with a sigh of relief, “Thank G-d we found this out in time! Go straight to the bridge, and as soon as they lower it, run to Hamburg and reunite with your wife.”